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How Science is Advancing the Art of Filmmaking to Meet 21st Century Audience Expectations Consistently

Dr Keith Bound , Receptive Cinema
16 Apr, 2018
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Digital technology enables neuroscientists and media psychologists to decode storytelling and real-time moviegoer experience and identify patterns of audience engagement. This form of data (the science of filmmaking) can be fused with the art of filmmaking to optimise audience engagement in movies, commercials and video games. Thereby, meeting/exceeding consumer expectations without compromising filmmakers or video games designers’ creativity. Moreover, by synthesising science with the art of filmmaking will increase returns by a minimum of 20% because it eliminates filmmakers’ ‘narrative blind spots’ they are unaware of that decrease audience engagement.

Changing Viewing Habits

Filmmakers are finding it harder to capture and sustain our attention because more people are consuming movies on a PC tablet and smartphone. This consumer behaviour has partly been driven by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, who provide online streaming services that enable consumers to watch movies and television programmes on a PC tablet and smartphone, 24/7 anytime and anyplace. This means that viewers have more options (screen sizes) to watch a movie and are no longer confined to the big screen in the cinema. Furthermore, 72% of the largest moviegoer age group (18-24yrs) own a PC tablet, the most popular mobile device to watch movies across all age groups (MPAA, 2016; Accenture, 2013). However, watching a movie on a tablet can reduce attention because they are prone to external environmental distractions, especially in public places and when travelling. This means that when the viewing experience is disrupted it generates a fragmented narrative (Pasman, 2011), rather than a continuous narrative intended by the filmmaker. Additionally, our dependence on the internet and obsession with smartphones has led to multiscreen viewing, where viewers simultaneously watch content on television, tablet and smart phone. This places additional demands on filmmakers to optimise attention and engagement consistently. Therefore, it is crucial filmmakers adopt new approaches to filmmaking that will enable them to align their creative vision with audience expectations and real-time moviegoer experience.

Science of Filmmaking Optimising Engagement

Digital technology has enabled Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to capture and integrate viewing behaviour patterns to generate personalised viewing experiences, so viewers get to see movies and television programmes they want to watch. The next step in personalisation will be to capture real-time viewer unconscious responses to movies and used in filmmaking to optimise engagement. Although Hollywood movie studios have been capturing moviegoer real-time unconscious responses to movie trailers to increase audience engagement since 2010 (Randall, 2013), it is advertising agencies (commercials) and video games companies that are leading the way in utilising the science of filmmaking/storytelling to optimise audience-user engagement. Advertising agencies recognise the science of consumer behaviour enables them to design advertising messages that optimise attention, engagement and maximise returns consistently. Video games companies value well-constructed narrative design that is based on user cognition, emotion and behavioural characteristics because it increases user attention, enjoyment and involvement in video games, without sacrificing the creative elements of storytelling/filmmaking.

Neuroscientists and media psychologists design research studies to capture viewer unconscious involuntary responses when viewers watch a movie, commercial or when users play a video game. They do this by detecting areas of brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or psychophysiological recording techniques (capturing physiological responses that determine psychological traits/emotions) such as: electroencephalogram (EEG) that measures brain wave activity; electrodermal activity (EDA) that measures emotional sweating by detecting electrical changes in the skin. Eye tracking is used to identify what viewers are looking at on screen and capturing micro-facial expressions detects specific emotions such as disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. Research outcomes can be used to create a scientific approach to filmmaking because they provide an in-depth understanding of audience-user real-time unconscious experiences to specific narrative features and audio-visual stimuli presented in stories.

Scientific Study: Audience Engagement in Movies

In a five-year scientific research study, we discovered how viewers responded to suspense micro-narratives in horror-thriller movies and how they trigger engagement when viewers’ experience the emotion anxiety during moments of suspense. We can track the fear-anxiety process from neural messages of the brain to electrodermal activity. Psychologist René Misslin explains when we experience a threatening stimulus, the brain’s fear response centre (amygdala) in the limbic system of the brain instinctively mobilises the sympathetic nervous system and fight-flight body defence system (Misslin, 2003). Through a neural network consisting of the hypothalamus, brain stem, sympathetic nervous system and eccrine sweat glands, electrical changes are produced in the skin (electrodermal activity) - emotional sweating (Knight, et al., 2005). Therefore, we selected the psychophysiological recording technique, electrodermal activity (EDA) to measure anxiety. 

This led us to create unique contributions to knowledge. This included measuring anxiety as a form of audience engagement and developing an innovation step change in how we define and measure suspense (anxiety) in terms of durability (time) and intensity (level) to specific storytelling cause and effect paradigms: micro-narrative structures, cinematography (camera shot, frame, angle, duration, movement, lighting), sound (diegetic and non-diegetic), stage props, editing (e.g. pacing) and acting performance. 

By deconstructing movies in this way using cause and effect paradigms, we could determine the most dominant narrative features/structures or/and cinematic techniques that optimised or decreased audience engagement. Although electrodermal activity was a crucial part of the study we took a mixed methods approach by triangulating three data sets: textual analysis of the filmmakers’ intentions to engage the audience, measuring behavioural traits (electrodermal activity) and viewer self-reports to contextualise their subjective experience.

Research Highlights

We discovered when the construction of suspense was successful it enabled viewers to become so absorbed in the story world they experienced a term called narrative transportation. This is where viewers feel they are a non-participatory character in the story world (Green & Brook, 2000). According to professor Ed Tan this is a form of ‘imagined-self empathy’ which invites the viewer to place themselves in the character’s situation as if they are facing the same situation (Tan, 2013). 

When filmmakers construct suspense they often include a narrative pattern of attention at specific moments during the movie at a macro (minutes) and micro level (seconds) to optimise engagement. These include character arcs that attempt to build an empathic response between viewer and character(s) or tiny micro-film sequences that are dependent on each other to optimise engagement and suspense within a micro-narrative structure. Repetitive narrative patterns of engagement were also discovered as a means of reinforcing specific visual or audio stimuli to sustain engagement. All patterns were attributed to a variety of narrative features and cinematic techniques: diegetic sounds, camera shots, angles, movement and lighting, POV and stage props and actor’s performance. 

The success of these patterns was dependant on how story information was concealed, delayed or revealed to viewers, specific characters or both. In some instances, we found that veiwers responded differently in terms of anxiety durability (time) and intensity (levels) to the same stimuli. However, when the right balance between revealing, concealing and delaying story information was achieved audience attention was optimised. Although this enabled viewers to empathise with fictional characters, split second timing (pacing) was crucial to viewer engagement in the story world. When the balance of information was out of sync we discovered filmmakers’ ‘narrative blind spots’ which decrease audience engagement.  This is because filmmakers rely on optimising engagement through creative assumptions and conventions which can lead to developing ‘narrative blind spots’ they are unaware of.

Optimising Engagement and Increasing Returns Consistently

With filmmakers taking a combined scientific and artistic approach to filmmaking it will eliminate ‘narrative blind spots’, optimise engagement, increase returns and meet 21st century consumer expectations consistently. This will also lead filmmakers to develop new storytelling conventions that are based on how viewers respond to narrative features-structures and cinematic techniques, such as: camera shot, frame, angle, duration, movement, lighting), sound (diegetic and non-diegetic), stage props, editing (e.g. pacing) and acting performance. 

Receptive Cinema is a specialist narrative design and audience engagement consultancy who work in collaboration with filmmakers to design compelling narratives for movies and commercials by fusing science and art of filmmaking - optimising engagement and increasing returns by a minimum of 20%. We work with directors/producers/editors by analysing the storyboard and offer scientific-creative solutions to eliminate ‘narrative blind spots’ by selecting specific narrative features and cinematic techniques: camera shot frame, angle, duration, and movement, sound (non-diegetic and diegetic), lighting and stage props, which will have the most impact for optimising audience engagement and increasing returns.

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